Cognitive control refers to the intentional selection of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors based on current task demands and social context, and the concomitant suppression of inappropriate habitual actions. To find out more about cognitive control and what brain area supports cognitive control, follow this article.
One of the enduring mysteries of brain function concerns the process of cognitive control. How does complex and seemingly wilful behavior emerge from interactions between millions of neurons? This has long been suspected to depend on the prefrontal cortex — the neocortex at the anterior end of the brain — but now we are beginning to uncover its neural basis.
Nearly all intended behavior is learned and so depends on a cognitive system that can acquire and implement the ‘rules of the game’ needed to achieve a given goal in a given situation. Studies indicate that the prefrontal cortex is central in this process. It provides an infrastructure for synthesizing a diverse range of information that lays the foundation for the complex forms of behavior observed in primates.
Follow this article and learn more about cognitive control, its region, and its importance based upon neuro psychology.
Table of Contents
What is cognitive control?
The ability to control and moderate one’s own behavior is called executive control or cognitive control. Executive functions are higher-order brain functions that involve the frontal lobe of the brain, specifically, the prefrontal cortex. Executive functions allow a person to organize and regulate their own behavior.
Examples of executive functions include the ability to have mental command over impulsivity, attention, planning, reasoning, and emotional responses. In some way, the cognitive control definition is not unlike the definition of mind control, except the person doing said mind control is oneself. Executive functions start to mature in adolescence and continue to develop over the next decade.
Controlling behavior is defined as the ability to act in a way that is contrary to immediate emotional or instinctual urges. Being able to control behavior and not act impulsively is very important in everyday social and professional interactions. Cognitive control refers to the intentional selection of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors based on current task demands and social context, and the concomitant suppression of inappropriate habitual actions.
What is the developmental process of cognitive control?
Due to the delayed maturation of the cognitive control, which is not completely myelinated until well into a person’s third decade of life. Development of executive functions tends to occur in spurts, when new skills, strategies, and forms of awareness emerge. These spurts are thought to reflect maturational events in the frontal areas of the brain. Attentional control appears to emerge in infancy and develop rapidly in early childhood.
Cognitive flexibility, goal setting, and information processing usually develop rapidly during ages 7–9 and mature by age 12. Cognitive control typically emerges shortly after a transition period at the beginning of adolescence. It is not yet clear whether there is a single sequence of stages in which executive functions appear, or whether different environments and early life experiences can lead people to develop them in different sequences. Development of cognitive control is divided into four phases of a human’s life:
- Early childhood
Cognitive control and working memory act as basic executive functions that make it possible for more complex executive functions like problem-solving to develop. Cognitive control and working memory are among the earliest executive functions to appear, with initial signs observed in infants, 7 to 12-months old. Then in the preschool years, children display a spurt in performance on tasks of inhibition and working memory, usually between the ages of 3 to 5 years.
Also during this time, cognitive flexibility, goal-directed behavior, and planning begin to develop. Nevertheless, preschool children do not have fully mature executive functions and continue to make errors related to these emerging abilities – often not due to the absence of the abilities, but rather because they lack the awareness to know when and how to use particular strategies in particular contexts.
Preadolescent children continue to exhibit certain growth spurts in executive functions, suggesting that this development does not necessarily occur in a linear manner, along with the preliminary maturing of particular functions as well. During preadolescence, children display major increases in verbal working memory; goal-directed behavior (with a potential spurt around 12 years of age); response inhibition and selective attention; and strategic planning and organizational skills.
Additionally, between the ages of 8 to 10, cognitive flexibility in particular begins to match adult levels. However, similar to patterns in childhood development, executive functioning in preadolescents is limited because they do not reliably apply these cognitive functions across multiple contexts as a result of ongoing development of inhibitory control.
Many cognitive functions may begin in childhood and preadolescence, such as inhibitory control. Yet, it is during adolescence when the different brain systems become better integrated. At this time, youth implement cognitive functions, such as inhibitory control, more efficiently and effectively and improve throughout this time period.
Just as inhibitory control emerges in childhood and improves over time, planning and goal-directed behavior also demonstrate an extended time course with ongoing growth over adolescence. Likewise, functions such as attentional control, with a potential spurt at age 15, Along with working memory, continue developing at this stage.
The major change that occurs in the brain in adulthood is the constant myelination of neurons in the prefrontal cortex. At age 20–29, executive functioning skills are at their peak, which allows people of this age to participate in some of the most challenging mental tasks. These skills begin to decline in later adulthood.
Working memory and spatial span are areas where decline is most readily noted. Cognitive flexibility, however, has a late onset of impairment and does not usually start declining until around age 70 in normally functioning adults. Impaired executive functioning has been found to be the best predictor of functional decline in the elderly.
How does cognitive control boost your well-being?
Cognitive control refers to using our minds to steer our behaviors and experiences towards better outcomes by overriding habits and other automatic tendencies. For example, we can use cognitive control to rein in our typical reactions (e.g., anger when being cheated). A recent research review suggests that cognitive control may just be the best tool we have to improve our well-being. Here are a few strategies you can try today.
- Positive aspects of future
- Imagining best outcomes
- Focus on your present
- Reframe your experiences
- Remember good things from your past
The very first step in getting control of your brain is to be aware of your thoughts and feelings in the first place. Awareness includes the ability to identify and label thoughts, emotions, and related bodily sensations. We can increase self-awareness through exercises like focusing on our breathing and engaging in mindfulness.
Instead of incessantly pushing our thoughts away, or distracting ourselves from them—we observe them with interest and curiosity. As a result, we can better understand what we actually think and how these thoughts make us feel. Taking control of our minds in this way can be a great first step to boosting our well-being.
Positive aspects of future:
Shifting your attention is one of the most powerful tools in the cognitive control toolbox. More specifically, shifting your attention away from negative things and onto positive or even neutral things can improve your well-being. And you can use this strategy to improve our mood before, during, and after events.
Focusing on upcoming positive events is a relatively easy way to generate positive emotions. Plus, it may be an effective way to feel better even when things in the present are not going so well. That’s because when we do this, we’re generating positive emotions about an event that hasn’t even happened yet.
Imagining best outcomes:
In addition to focusing on the good stuff we know is coming in the future, we can also focus on positive possibilities that are not yet known. This is one way that cognitive control can be used to improve our well-being even when we can’t think of anything concrete to look forward to. Rather than thinking negative thoughts about how we could fail or struggle, we make an effort to think about how things could go really well, lead to success, or even completely change our lives for the better.
For example, if you’re preparing for a really tough meeting, imagine that perhaps the meeting goes great and even leads to an introduction to someone who changes your life for the better. Regardless of whether our thoughts and expectations turn out to be true, this type of cognitive control helps us put our minds at ease, which is often good for well-being.
Focus on your present:
Focusing on the present moment is another strategy that’s good for your well-being. For example, you might savor the positive moments by trying to feel and experience them fully. When you savor, you pay attention to all the good parts of what you are experiencing right now. You might stop to smell the roses or pay extra attention to how good the sun feels on your shoulders. As a result, you feel more positive emotions.
Plus, focusing on the present moment appears to be beneficial even if we’re not feeling especially positive. This type of present awareness is often referred to as mindfulness, and it has been shown to improve mental health, at least in some circumstances. With mindfulness, instead of letting our minds wander, get caught up in negative thoughts, or spin out on what it all means, we focus on what’s happening right in front of us in real life. And doing so tends to be good for our well-being.
Reframe your experiences:
Cognitive reappraisal is another cognitive control strategy that has been shown to be good for well-being. Cognitive reappraisal is often used in response to negative or stressful experiences to improve our emotional experience. For example, if you just lost your job, you might use cognitive reappraisal to change the way you’re thinking about the situation.
Rather than thinking about the challenges that lay ahead, you might instead try to think about what you are learning from this experience or how this experience is good because now you can pursue a job you really want. By shifting your thoughts about your present experience, you shift your emotions in ways that can improve well-being.
Remember good things from your past:
All of us have positive memories stored away that we can use to help us feel better in the present. For example, we can reminisce on good times, think about what we’re grateful for, or reflect on things that helped us grow or gave our lives meaning. By using cognitive control to tap into the past, we can bring back some of the positive emotions we already experienced.
Common ways to access these positive memories include writing about past positive events, analyzing them, or replaying them in our minds. The more positive details we can recall, the better we are likely to feel. So when thinking about past positive events, try to recall who was there, what the environment was like, what you thought about, and what you felt like. By doing so, you generate more positive emotions that can contribute to greater happiness.
How can you improve your cognitive control?
A growing body of scientific research suggests that the following steps are linked to cognitive health. Small changes may really add up: Making these part of your routine could help you function better.
- Taking care of your health
- Managing high blood pressure
- Physical activity
- Mental activity
- Social activities
- Stress management
- Take care of your cognitive health
Taking care of your health:
Taking care of your physical health may help your cognitive health. You can:
- Go to recommended health screenings
- Manage chronic health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and high cholesterol.
- Consult with your health care provider about the medicines you take and possible side effects on memory, sleep, and brain function.
- Reduce risk for brain injuries due to falls and other accidents.
- Limit use of alcohol (some medicines can be dangerous when mixed with alcohol).
- Quit smoking, if you currently smoke. Also avoid other nicotine products such as chewing tobacco.
- Get enough sleep, generally seven to eight hours each night.
Managing high blood pressure:
High blood pressure often does not cause signs of illness that you can see or feel. Routine visits to your doctor will help pick up changes in your blood pressure, even though you might feel fine. To control or lower high blood pressure, your doctor may suggest exercise, changes in your diet, and if needed — medications. These steps can help protect your brain and your heart.
Being physically active through regular exercise, household chores, or other activities. It has many benefits. It can help you:
- Keep and improve your strength
- Have more energy
- Improve your balance
- Prevent or delay heart disease, diabetes, and other concerns
- Perk up your mood and reduce depression
Being intellectually engaged may benefit the brain. People who engage in personally meaningful activities, such as volunteering or hobbies, say they feel happier and healthier. Learning new skills may improve your thinking ability, too.
Lots of activities can keep your mind active. For example, read books and magazines. Play games. Take or teach a class. Learn a new skill or hobby. Work or volunteer. These types of mentally stimulating activities have not been proven to prevent serious cognitive impairment.
Connecting with other people through social activities and community programs can keep your brain active and help you feel less isolated and more engaged with the world around you. Participating in social activities may lower the risk for some health problems and improve well-being.
People who engage in personally meaningful and productive activities with others tend to live longer, boost their mood, and have a sense of purpose. Studies show that these activities seem to help maintain their well-being and may improve their cognitive function.
Stress is a natural part of life. Short-term stress can even focus our thoughts and motivate us to take action. However, over time, chronic stress can change the brain, affect memory, and increase the risk for Alzheimer’s and related dementias. To help manage stress and build the ability to bounce back from stressful situations, there are many things you can do:
- Exercise regularly. Going for a walk, especially in nature, can restore a sense of well-being.
- Write in a journal. Putting your thoughts or worries on paper can help you let go of an issue or see a new solution.
- Try relaxation techniques. Practices such as mindfulness which involves focusing awareness on the present moment without judgment or breathing exercises can help your body relax. These can help lower blood pressure, lessen muscle tension, and reduce stress.
- Stay positive. Release grudges or things beyond your control, practice gratitude, or pause to enjoy the simple things, like the comfort of a cup of tea or the beauty of a sunrise.
Take care of your cognitive health:
Genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors are all thought to influence cognitive health. Some of these factors may contribute to a decline in thinking skills and the ability to perform everyday tasks such as driving, paying bills, taking medicine, and cooking.
Genetic factors are passed down (inherited) from a parent to child and cannot be controlled. But many environmental and lifestyle factors can be changed or managed to reduce your risk. These factors include:
- Some physical and mental health problems, such as high blood pressure or depression
- Brain injuries, such as those due to falls or accidents
- Some medicines, or improper use of medicines
- Lack of physical activity
- Poor diet
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Sleep problems
- Social isolation and loneliness
Why is cognitive control important?
Cognitive skills can be categorized as long-term memory, visual processing, processing speed, sustained attention, divided attention, working memory, logic and reasoning, selective attention, and auditory processing.
These skills matter because they help you recognise patterns, analyze and solve problems, understand and comprehend information, brainstorm effectively, and have focused attention. Moreover, strengthening your cognitive skills and building your logic and reasoning skills can help you develop creative solutions to challenges.
Cognitive skills are mental capabilities that are vital for students to learn effectively. They complement each other to function effectively and determine the success of learning outcomes. As most learning challenges are caused by inadequate cognitive skills, it is necessary to question how we are enabling our future leaders to grow and what tools we can provide for their growth. Schools can start focusing on developing students’ cognitive skills through age-appropriate physical activities and brain exercises.
Research has established that certain chemicals released during exercise stimulate neural connections and brain growth. In addition, they can try to enhance children’s creativity and curiosity by exposing them to art, music, crafts, Sudoku, crosswords, and more. This can significantly influence logic and reasoning skills. Another important activity is interaction with the natural world around them so that they are in tune with it.
Some of the aspects of cognition, they say, include the ability to learn necessary skills, solve problems, think abstractly, do mathematics and have control over primitive reactions, plus other things like comprehension, attention and perception. If your cognitive health isn’t up to scratch, some of the things you may have difficulties with may include:
- Paying attention
- Processing information quickly
- Remembering and recalling information
- Responding to information quickly
- Thinking critically, planning, organizing and solving problems
What brain area supports cognitive control?
Any conscious actions must be first approved by the brain via a communication network that links the brain and the body together. Conscious responses are different from spontaneous responses, which can sometimes bypass the brain. The brain’s communication network is made of billions of special nerve cells, called neurons. Neurons guide human behavior by transmitting electrical signals from the body to the brain, from the brain to the body, and within the brain itself. Another name for the brain regions involved in cognitive control, awareness, memories, and personality is the cerebral cortex.
Based upon neuropsychological and neurophysiological studies in humans, and recording studies of nonhuman primates, the prefrontal cortex is widely believed to play a key role in supporting cognitive control in the brain.
Different parts of the brain control different bodily functions. For example, the back of the brain is largely responsible for systems that control vision and balance. The front of the brain, however, called the frontal lobe or frontal cortex, is largely responsible for personality, mood, and executive control. In human beings, the frontal cortex is exceptionally large.
The exact mechanisms behind cognitive control are still not completely understood, however, there are several theories and principles to describe how cognitive control probably works. What is known is that there are specific regions, or nodes, in the brain that have regulatory control over certain types of behavioral functions and actions. These regulatory nodes have the ability to direct the rest of the brain network to respond in a way that influences behavior and systemic responses.
What conditions affect cognitive control?
If you have mild cognitive impairment it means you are affected by a level of cognitive decline that’s higher than normal for your age, but the symptoms aren’t bad enough to interfere significantly with your daily life. These symptoms can include problems with your memory, your reasoning or problem solving, your attention, your language, and your vision.
There aren’t currently any medicines approved for treating mild cognitive impairment, though you may be advised to exercise regularly, to eat healthily, to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink and to stop smoking. Following are some of the most prominent conditions that can affect your cognitive control:
- Parkinson’s disease
Dementia is primarily thought of as a condition that causes memory loss, but several other aspects of cognitive health can be affected too, including thinking skills, language, learning, planning, mood, orientation and judgment.
There is no cure for dementia at the moment. But if diagnosed early the progress of the disease can be slowed down with medication in some cases. This is why it’s important to see your GP without delay if you notice you’re having problems with things like your memory, your mental sharpness, your understanding or your movements, or even if you’re having difficulties carrying out daily activities.
Cognitive impairment and memory loss are also common after a stroke, as stroke affects parts of the brain that are involved with things like attention, memory, language and orientation. Scientists have also found that around 30 percent of people who have a stroke develop dementia within a year – indeed stroke is thought to be the second most common cause of cognitive impairment and dementia.
Often referred to as a brain attack, a stroke is caused either by reducing blood and oxygen flow to the brain or by bleeding in the brain – these are called ischemic stroke and hemorrhagic stroke respectively. A transient ischemic attack – also called TIN or a mini stroke – is sometimes considered as a third type of stroke, caused by a temporary interruption of blood flow to the brain.
If you have Parkinson’s disease, your brain becomes damaged progressively over many years. The main symptoms are physical – shaking of the hands and other parts of the body, stiff muscles and slow movement – but there are many other symptoms, including depression, anxiety and memory problems. Indeed, according to the US-based Parkinson’s Foundation, some people with Parkinson’s experience mild cognitive impairment (xii).
The Parkinson’s Foundation also claims that cognitive changes accompanying Parkinson’s during the early stages tend to be limited to one or two areas, including attention, mental processing, problem-solving, memory, language and visual difficulties (such as being able to measure distance and depth).
Some people with Parkinson’s also go on to develop dementia, with most affected by types of dementia called Parkinson’s dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies (around half of people with Parkinson’s are thought to develop dementia at some stage).
What natural supplements can you use to improve your cognitive control?
Another option that you may want to consider to keep your brain healthy – that is, taking supplements. Many people take nutritional supplements to support their physical and mental health, but these days brain health supplements are also becoming increasingly popular. Here’s a list of some of the most popular nutritional supplements that may be useful if you want to maintain your cognitive health or even give it a bit of a boost.
- High-strength fish oils
- Turmeric (curcumin)
- B complex
- Vitamin C
- Green tea
Other cognitive skills include logic and reasoning, which help us to generate ideas and solve problems by analyzing, deducing necessary information and understanding them. This also requires auditory processing, which means our brains blend, analyze, and segment information we have heard or listened to.
Considerable evidence suggests individuals will engage cognitive control when they expect that it will produce a valued outcome that outweighs the intrinsic effort cost—this may be an immediate or future reward, or a desired change in one’s emotional state in the absence of external incentives.